Some of the least powerful in the land -- a thief, a drug dealer, a prostitute -- came before the state's most powerful -- the governor, the attorney general and the Supreme Court chief justice -- on Monday to ask forgiveness for their crimes.

John Troyer, now a prison minister, wanted to be wiped clean of the burglary and robberies he committed in the 1970s.

"There was a sense of wickedness inside me that I walked with for a long time," Troyer told Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Attorney General Lori Swanson at the state's fall meeting of the Minnesota Board of Pardons.

The pardon board gives lawbreakers a chance at final forgiveness from the state. If all three members of the board agree, the state sets aside previous convictions and the former criminals no longer have to report them.

The pardon board's work is a quiet part of the justice system approached by very few ex-cons. Last year, the board heard 62 requests for pardon. They granted 26.

Those who commit violent crimes or use weapons are discouraged from seeking pardons. For lesser offenders, the ability to apply for jobs or apartments without revealing past crimes, to simply live free of a criminal past, drives them to take a chance.

Judging those offenders is a weighty responsibility, Swanson said.

"The process can be very moving, very jarring, very powerful," she said before Monday's meeting. "You have to balance two competing forces: society's belief in retribution and society's belief in redemption."

So, more than 30 years after his crimes, Troyer sat at the end of a long table in an ornate, chandeliered Judicial Center conference room in St. Paul to tell his tale.

Troyer's grandfather was murdered. His father was murdered. He was sexually abused, he told the board. He amassed a juvenile record that grew longer as he became an adult. In 1973, he and an accomplice robbed $30 from someone at gunpoint and then stole $90 from a store. In 1977, Troyer forged a check. Two years later, he stole a computer and cash from a St. Cloud apartment.

Then his crimes stopped. During a prison stint in 1981, Troyer had a spiritual awakening, he said. He had found God and a new way of life.

When Troyer got out, he created a Minneapolis nonprofit called Make Old Things New Inc., to aid criminals, drug addicts and the homeless.

"I feel, spiritually, that God forgives me for what I have done," Troyer said. On Monday, he asked the state's forgiveness.

The state wasn't sure.

"I'm torn," Pawlenty said.

Magnuson was similarly torn. When he read the pardon board's file on Troyer, one of the more than a dozen such files packed into two, five-inch-thick notebooks, Magnuson thought he would be a definite no vote.

"When I started reading this, I wrote a note to myself, 'too much, too often,'" the justice told Troyer. "Then I got into all the good stuff you are doing."

Troyer's good deeds earned him a pardon from all but a gun robbery charge.

Frank Paterson, of Minneapolis, got no reprieve from the 1998 crime that has dogged him.

Holding his 6-month-old son at the back of the meeting room before the board arrived, Paterson, 30, said he committed his crime as a misdirected 18-year-old. Eleven years ago, Paterson and some of his buddies were bored. So they cut the wire fence at Midland Hills Country Club and played bumper cars with the golf carts, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage to the golf course. Paterson was convicted of criminal damage to property.

"I did a lot of stupid stuff back then," he said.

But a history of probation violations proved too much for the board. Swanson moved to deny the pardon and the board agreed.

Sheila Sweeney found more sympathy.

Twelve years ago, while collecting welfare, Sweeney lied on her monthly reports, claiming to be jobless while secretly working part time.

"The only thing on my mind was surviving," Sweeney told the board. In 1997 she was a single mother of two small children -- one of whom she had two weeks before her 16th birthday -- with little to support them.

Since then, Sweeney has repaid all $16,712 she wrongfully obtained in welfare, earned a master's degree and now is working on a doctorate. A social worker, she tries to helps people become better parents.

The board gave her something extra to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. It granted her a complete pardon and sent her home with congratulations for the dedication she had shown.

"I was shocked," Sweeney said afterward. "It makes me feel elated. It feels like a heavy burden has been lifted."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164